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Reporter’s Notebook: China Embraces Globalism with Chinese Characteristics

Global is great. Anyone who follows the China business scene probably wouldn’t need too long to guess those words were uttered by Alibaba founder Jack Ma, who was singing the praises of free trade and globalism on the second day of the World Economic Forum this week in Davos, Switzerland. Ma never saw a platform he didn’t like, including the e-commerce platforms that have made him one of the world’s richest men, as well as more figurative platforms like the World Economic Forum.

Ma’s growing embrace of globalism in many ways symbolizes the theme of my second day at the big event, where a top executive from the country’s UnionPay money transfer network also detailed the huge strides his company has made in becoming global. And lest anyone think the globalism is one-way, China’s top government official attending this year’s forum also disclosed the country will implement a new round of opening of its financial services sector later this year.

As someone who comes from the land of free trade, namely the U.S., I have to admit I find this sudden role reversal between the U.S. and China a bit disorienting. At the same time, I do understand that U.S. President Donald Trump’s increasingly protectionist sentiment at least partly reflects a lopsided trade relationship between America and China, which is best seen in the huge trade imbalance between the pair. That imbalance has played an important part in helping China achieve its economic miracle over the last 30 years, and many might say that now it’s time for some balance to return to the relationship.

Ma’s usual overstated performance on a stage at Davos was pretty typical for the man I’ve come to know and even become fond of over my many years following the Chinese internet. He was gushing with his usual enthusiasm on his latest pulpit, a panel titled “Enabling E-commerce,” where he bubbled not only that “Global is great,” but also that trade was unstoppable. It’s hard to object when someone puts it that way, though Trump may get a chance to do just that when he gives his own speech at Davos just before its official close on Thursday.

Earlier in the day, I got to talk to an equally friendly Liu Yuan, chief strategist at UnionPay, the transaction settlement specialist that wants to give global giants MasterCard and Visa a run for their money. A chatty but slightly more down-to-earth Liu informed me that UnionPay now has about the same global reach as Visa, with more than 2 million ATMs accepting its cards in 162 countries and regions. Never mind that very few people outside China use the UnionPay network. It’s the globalism that counts.

One of Trump’s biggest beefs – that China’s markets are relatively closed to foreigners – also got attention during the day, when government official Liu He announced that China would open up its financial markets further to foreign investment later this year. Liu is China’s highest-ranking government official at Davos, and his remarks were highly anticipated by a foreign community that wishes China would ease the many restrictions it places on their ability to do business in the market.

Such calls for globalism by China would have been unthinkable just 10 or 15 years ago, when Chinese firms were just beginning to explore the global marketplace and $1 million was considered a big purchase abroad. Back then U.S. and other Western firms were much more bullish on China, buying stakes in a wide range of companies on hopes it would give them better access to the market.

But something happened along the way. Many Western companies became disillusioned after seeing their investments go nowhere and being told their opinions didn’t matter. The Chinese companies saw things differently, basking in a global marketplace that was certainly challenging but also offered them a whole new playing field. Here in Davos that latter giddiness was clearly on display in my few encounters that second day, even as a quieter Western skepticism continues to weigh on the relationship.    

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